In early December last year at Warwick University, a group of student activists cut through the winter lethargy with an occupation of the Slate, a newly-built £5.3m conference building. Organised by the student activist group Warwick for Free Education, the occupation pushed for three demands to be met by the university’s management.
The first demand was that Warwick University opt out of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the Conservative government’s most recent contribution to the marketization of education. In effect, the TEF provides an incentive for universities to further structure themselves around turning out profitable workers, regardless of educational quality, by allowing them to raise their tuition fees in proportion to a ‘score’ based on graduate employment metrics.
The framework reinforces the idea that universities should be evaluated based on their economic contribution to capitalist society, rather than on the quality of their education. The humanities and creative arts develop the critical and creative abilities that have contributed so much to the advancement of society and culture, but their lack of conformity to the profit motive of capitalist society means that they’ll be crushed as education becomes more marketized.
The second demand was that Warwick University improve its terms of work for hourly-paid teachers, as casualisation becomes an increasingly central part of the university’s teaching model. Affiliated political student group Warwick Anti-Casualisation highlighted that a mid-2016 study found 24% of Warwick’s hourly-paid teachers earn less than the national living wage (£7.20/hour). Among major concerns raised by the anti-casualisation group are the denial of employee status and associated rights for hourly-paid teachers; wages based on unrealistic time allowances which result in unpaid work-hours; inconsistency of pay between departments; and the exploitation of PhD students through compulsory unpaid teaching. This systematic exploitation of teachers reflects a wider trend in society as a whole, gripped as it is by a crisis of capitalism.
The third demand of the occupation was that the university apologise for maltreatment of students by university security during a protest against tuition fee rises on 3rd December 2014, and for the university’s subsequent denial of wrongdoing. They also asked that the university lift the injunction, prohibiting any form of collective protest on campus, put into place following these events. The handling of the 3rd December 2014 protest reflected deeper issues in the university’s attitude towards students. As business prospects, students are shamelessly courted, but as people who are interested in politics and fighting to defend their education they are severely restricted.
The occupation of the Slate lasted over two weeks, and the commitment of all the students involved is beyond doubt. The occupation was officially supported by the student union, which was key. But of course we need the student union to go further. We need to be campaigning for the student union itself to be leading actions like this. It has the infrastructure and the authority to turn a campaign or an occupation like this into a genuinely campus-wide movement.
The occupation also won the support of the local UCU (lecturers’ union) branch and other UCU branches around the country. This is essential, and next time there’ll be even more scope for building links and organising action jointly with workers on and around campus. Student and workers unite and fight is more than just a slogan – it’s vital if we’re serious about fighting the Tories and fighting capitalism.
Direct action, like student occupations, clearly has a role to play in the fight for free education. The Warwick occupation achieved some concessions – the university apologised for the events of December 2014; management promised to recognise UCU as the representative union of hourly-paid teachers and the vice-chancellor has publicly criticised the TEF.
But direct action should always be just one tactic, which is part of a well thought-out political strategy. Although the achievements of the occupation should be recognised, none of the concessions have actually changed anything fundamental. Staff will still be exploited, the university will still sign up to TEF, and education will continue to be marketized.
We need to build on the gains we’ve already made and look now to striking blows at the root cause of our problems: capitalism. In future we need to make use of talks and workshops in occupations like this one to raise people’s sights. We should discuss the revolutionary movements of the past; the history and theory of class struggle; and debate what socialism might look like.
And we need to make practical plans for how to achieve our revolutionary aims. We need an alliance between students and workers at a local level and at a national level. It needs to be an alliance based on achieving fundamental change in society, so that we can guarantee that our education will never be marketised and our jobs and living standards will always be secure. We need to build a mass movement around these goals.
The Warwick Marxist society is very enthusiastic about the steps forward taken by the occupation at Warwick. We want to work with Warwick for Free Education, Warwick Anti-Casualisation, Warwick UCU and anyone else we can to develop a revolutionary political strategy that will take our struggle forwards.
by Woody Phillips-Smith, Warwick Marxists